“Real” Is a Four-Letter Word: Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children Series

Every now and again you read a book or a series that hooks you from word one and never lets go. It burrows deep into your brain and you find your mind wandering back to it at random moments. That’s what Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is for me. It’s been a few months since I finished her darkly beautiful series in two days and I still can’t stop thinking about it. If you run in bookish circles, you’ve probably heard how great Wayward Children is, but trust me, it’s even better than that.

The question isn’t what is it like to find a doorway to another world, but what happens when you come back. Nancy experiences that conundrum first hand at the start of Every Heart a Doorway, the first novella in the series. Unable to accept her old life after what felt like ages as a living statue in the Halls of the Dead, Nancy winds up at the School for Wayward Children. Run by Eleanor West, a wayward child long since grown, the school occupies the kids until they either surrender to the mundanity of the “real” world or rediscover the door that will return them to the world they lost. Shortly after Nancy’s arrival, several kids are brutally murdered. With the help of her schoolmates, she investigates the crimes.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of Jack and Jill before their time at the school. As Jacqueline and Jillian, the twins are lonely and empty until the day they find a staircase at the bottom of a trunk in the attic. Down they go until they step through a doorway and out onto the Moors. The land is a place straight out of a Victorian gothic horror story, but they quickly settle in. Jill becomes the plaything for a vampire lord while Jack is apprenticed to a mad scientist. To prove her loyalty, Jill commits a violent act, and to save her life Jack does the unthinkable.

Rini falls from the sky into the pond at the school right in front of Cora in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She claims to be Sumi’s daughter even though Sumi died before bearing children. Cora and her new friends follow her to Confection to challenge the Queen of Cakes.

The novellas are part of a series, but can be read as standalones—though why you’d deny yourself the pleasure of all three stories is beyond me.

At the heart of it, Wayward Children is about home. It’s about finding yourself, believing in yourself, understanding yourself. The lost kids found other worlds (or the other worlds found them) precisely because the ìrealî world wouldn’t let them be who they truly are. “I am what I am, and there’s much about me that won’t be changed with any amount of wishing or wanting.” Jack said those lines to her girlfriend, but it could have come from any character in the series. Our world denied them what their portal worlds solidified and reaffirmed.

Nancy was hassled as an asexual kid in an allosexual world until she found peace in the Halls of the Dead. Sumi discovered the joy of chaos in Confection after fleeing her rigid home life. Cora came out of her shell in the Trenches because for the first time ever she was proud of who she was. Jack and Jill became their real selves in the Moors after a childhood being treated like dolls by their parents. In Kade’s particular case, his truth was what Prism needed but not what it wanted. Both worlds turned him away. He ran from his first home to escape the narrow, cruel rules of his family and was kicked out of his second when it ended up being just as close-minded. His home isn’t with his parents or his portal world but in the space between that is Eleanor’s school. In a way, her school is neither here nor there. It’s a space of transience where children wait until they can wait no longer.

Everyone has had a period in their life where they feel like an outsider, but for some of us, the thing that marks us as different isn’t a trend or quirk but a fundamental part of who we are. Sometimes it’s a passing shadow that comes and goes as we age and encounter new gatekeepers and conflicts. And sometimes it’s a weed with roots so deep they dig down into our hearts and grow so tall everything else is overpowered.

That sense of disconnect that the wayward children suffer through I know all too well. For most of my life I didn’t just feel different but inadequate and wrong. I couldn’t understand the appeal of sex or romance and hated myself for not getting something that seemed so basic and obvious. I was trapped in the hell of feeling fundamentally broken for three full decades before I finally figured out who I really was—asexual and aromantic. It was like a whole new world opened up to me. I stepped through my own doorway and found a world where I am the truest version of myself.

Although I felt a kinship with Nancy because she’s also ace (but not aro), however Jack was the character who stole my heart. During her hollow, isolated life as Jacqueline, she navigated a world that lacked options and discovery, but once she became Jack she was determined to be exactly who she was regardless of anyone else’s intentions. Jack refused to live a life where she wasn’t accepted for who she was, and neither will I. I won’t ever go back to that old life of self-loathing and unhealthy relationships. For the rest of my days I will stay in my portal world where I’m happy, healthy, and comfortable. As Sumi told Nancy, “You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.”

There’s fiction and then there’s Fiction, and Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novellas live squarely in the latter. But I expect no less from McGuire. No, seriously, she’s awesomely amazing. Her October Daye books are some of the best urban fantasies series I’ve ever read, and don’t even get me started on the books she writes as Mira Grant. Wayward Children easily lives up to the McGuire hype. This series is a shining example of the best of fantasy. McGuire’s prose is as heartrending as always. Each character is unique and exceptionally well-defined. She celebrates intersectional diversity and rejects tokenization for realistic representation. This series is fantastic, you guys. I cannot state that enough. It’s absolutely stunning.

The Wayward Children novellas—Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and Beneath the Sugar Sky—are available from Tor.com Publishing.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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